New Year, New Challenges

Published: 22nd January 2017

Armed with a series of resolutions to get out there and explore even further, we have taken advantage of some great breaks in the weather to see what we could find. The promise of a decent weekend and the prospect of hawfinch made a visit to Grantown a must. Spurred on by reports on the Highland Birds site of a flock around the banks of the Spey since November, we made the trip across and explored the area of the Old Spey Bridge, near Grantown, where they have been seen on a regular basis. After a short walk by the river (goosander, goldeneye, dipper), Angela and I were relieved to find a birder peering up into the tops of some old larches. We had a fleeting glimpse of a couple of hawfinches flitting in and out of the tree-tops immediately after arrival, but not nearly enough to satisfy us. Waiting around for about an hour (good job it was a nice day), we eventually saw a flock of sixteen large rotund-looking finches flying into a more distant group of larches. We were able to move closer and get some reasonable views of these through the scope. Here they stayed for at least 30 minutes, and were still there by the time we left, although by now a veritable crowd of birders had assembled to watch them. Very handsome finches, the males stood out, with a rich brown crown and crisp black bibs above and below those chunky bills – everything we could have wished for. The sighting was improved by the presence of both chaffinch and greenfinch in the same trees, allowing a clear contrast in both size and markings. It will be interesting to see how long they remain in the area. Why they have chosen to frequent this particular group of rather nondescript larch is a mystery, as is their origin.

Seeking for further amusement we had a quick wander through the nearby Aonagach Woods and were rewarded with red squirrel and treecreeper. We were also on the lookout for visiting waxwing, which seem to be everywhere except in the vicinity of Fort William. We wandered through some of the villages where they had been reported but struck lucky on the return home through Aviemore. There in the fading light, in a scruffy little tree by the side of the main road, were two waxwing. Angela snuck up on them to take a picture, but they soon flew away – not at her approach but because a sparrowhawk was making a beeline for them. The journey across to the Cairngorms NP also produced wild goat and blackcock, so all in all a successful day.

The weather this weekend has also been fantastic (until today at least), so we decided to make the most of it on Friday with another trip across to the Cairngorms to look for mountain hare. This time we decided to explore Glen Feshie, and have a walk up the hills there – somewhat unknown territory. The weather was distinctly disappointing when we arrived, with thick mist lying over the valley. By the time we had ascended through the pinewoods, however, we emerged into brilliant sunshine, and enjoyed a fantastic inversion for the rest of the day, with a fabulous vista of peaks poking out from a sea of cloud. Taking advantage of the (frankly too) warm sunshine, and a lack of snow, we headed up onto the summit plateau in search of hares. Sadly, the nearest we got was some fresh droppings. We did see a few red grouse and a stonechat on the way up, one cock grouse looking as if he was already claiming territory. As the path started to level we found a couple of cock ptarmigan, resplendent in pristine white plumage, broken only by a black eye-stripe. The problem was that although these birds were crouching in remnant snow patches, they were too white, and stood out like a sore thumb against the discoloured snow. No wonder hares were conspicuous by their absence! On the summit of Carn Ban Mor a snow bunting flitted across, but there was little other sign of life. On the descent we were surprised to find a large amount of red bearberries, yet to be snaffled.

The next day we continued to again enjoy the weather, but this time with an otter pilgrimage, closer to home. The waters of Loch Linnhe were flat calm, and the mountain tops pin sharp – sadly not great conditions for raptors. Across the Corran Ferry we soon found great northern diver and several wintering Slavonian grebes, along with eider, black guillemot, goldeneye, goosander and merganser. In one of our usual stops an otter was soon spotted fishing. She seemed to be quite thin, with a small tail, but caught and brought ashore a decent-sized fish, so we assume it was OK. Stopping off at the fabulous Garbh Eilean hide we found another otter that also fished for some time. In each case the otters were shadowed by curious seals, but in neither case did there seem to be any sort of real interaction between the species. Below us as we watched were a curlew and a whimbrel, stood side by side on rocks. Red deer were all over the place, by the side of the road, but with such mild weather of late there is still plenty for them to eat.

Back at home the mild weather and thoughts of spring has already turned the minds of frisky squirrels.  Two were seen chasing each other through the garden of Glenloy Lodge, with an earlier sighting of a single raising the possibility that they might stick around.  In the light of ongoing pine marten activity this may not be too wise. Up to three martens are still coming to feed in the evening. Despite moving the bird feeders these were soon found by great spotted woodpecker, and the sparrowhawk (fortunately not at the same time). Miniature irises have erupted into bloom in the planters outside the front door, but one cannot help but feel this has been a little premature.